When Will Videogames Find Their Seat at the Table of Fine Arts?

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and ICO

One year ago…

This is the writing proof I sent in to 1up.com offices to apply for internship. The first part was like an audition sample. I was scheduled for an interview in San Francisco, but unfortunately one of my finals fell on the same day. And there was a big choice I had to make. But I’ll save that story for a bar stool and drinks. Hey I could always freelance.

The Preamble
(Please submit a 500 word sample about video games and why they are important to you.)

Things Are Artful, Even Without Artful Intentions
by Deo Blas


During the game’s climactic ending, after 20+ hours of hide and seek tension games, after learning about a plot of defection and triple agents, you face off against the direct threat to your country’s survival. You combat the menace in a grassy meadow and manage to take her down. You are now ready to perform the coup de grâce. Your former mentor is partially defeated, lying on her back facing a gloomy soviet sky. The meadow that you fought in is ripe with satin white flowers. You stand above her with a gun positioned towards her sputtering heart. The whole time you spent playing was leading up to this moment – the chance to end it all in a battle between the feuding USA and USSR. In order to prove your country’s innocence in the involvement of nuclear fire you must kill your mentor, or suffer the nuclear holocaust that would result in your failure.

You have no other options, now that you know the truth. How much do you care for your country? What are you willing to do? To sacrifice? Does executing your closest companion weigh against the millions of lives that are totally oblivious to your fight? Looking down at the person that showed you everything about war, how to fight, how to survive, is now reduced to a lifeless mass, barely able to breathe. She knows what you must do to save millions of lives. She willingly took this assignment knowing full well it would be her last. No one will ever know her sacrifice for her country. No one will ever know the heart-ache. Everyone will forget her as the greatest WWII hero to have ever lived and instead remember her as the greatest traitor to the United States.

The game strips you of any options that you would normally have. You only have the firing command. And as much as you want to save everyone, you have to let go this one time. Just this one time. I sit with my controller thinking about, how if this were real, I could never have the heart to shoot someone I truly cared about. Even in those drastic of situations, I would have them take me instead.

But in order to finish this game, you must pull that trigger. Banggggg……….

The sound is echoed forever in your mind. The meadow burns brown and the white flowers bleed into crimson. Red engulfs the valley and all will never be forgiven. And I cried. I kept telling myself that this was a video game. Yet I fell apart. That, to me, is art.

Games as Art?
The subject matter is almost as grey as how we try to define art itself. Standing nor black nor white, art is subjective and many among the gaming community defend and rebuke their medium as a legitimate piece of interactive art.

Videogames are not Art. At least, not yet. They haven’t caused an outside influence or emotional response from people not involved in the gaming industry. The trouble with video games as art is that art gets redefined so often and video-games are so relatively young, that its hard for both to see eye to eye. Art is a moving target that changes from season to season and games are the 4-year-old boy firing a shotgun.

As far as we know games may be carving a new type of art. Something that we may not know for a century. That’s how long it took for motion pictures to be a widely accepted form of art. Movies were literally snubbed during its humble beginnings . So like every medium before it, videogames are currently being judged for what they provide to society. Games are going through the same motions. In its’ current state, it will go through the trials and tribulations that every art medium has gone through to gradually gain mass societal acceptance. Picasso’s “Guernica”, Micheangelo’s “David”, John Sargent’s “Madame X”, D.W. Griffith’s “A birth of a nation”, Richard Pryor’s Standup, Stanely Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, and Manet’s “Olympia”, although having different medium developments, all have one thing in common. They were all controversial for being purveyor’s of a message that only those mediums could uniquely convey. As a form of traditional art, games do meet most of the criteria assumed for an art medium. There is form, continuity, meaning, expression, high skill, stimulation, creative control, observation, interpretation. But its soul is a little lacking. Moby Francke, art director on Team Fortress 2 at Valve, had this to say about gaming art design,

“I think video games are at such infancy in terms of art style, actually developing it. We’re dealing with 4000 years, really, of art and conceptual design.

For it really not to be utilized, and for the industry to basically dwell in a certain type of genre which has been around the 1980s up to present time, it’s pretty much all they’re embracing. It’s the same way, you have Star Wars and the original Stanley Kubrick movie 2001. And people embrace that genre of outer space, so to speak. And it’s continued to this very day. Hopefully people will wake up someday.”

The problem of choice

History isn’t the only thing standing in the way of games being perceived as high art. Different outcomes and player controlled actions defeat the ultimate view of what an artist would be trying to accomplish. Videogames give the best appearance of freedom, or rather, they give the best illusion of freedom. They are the greatest simulators our society has and the closest embodiment of our creative cognitive imagination. Let’s look at a good example of this. ICO for the Playstation 2.

ICO’s premise is simple. You try and escape a labyrinthine castle with a girl. But like most things in life, the goal line isn’t simply a hop-skip away. Complications arise.

The reason why this game is revered as the art house savior of the gaming world is its refining of gameplay actions tied to emotional response. The single act of escorting Yorda is the most sincere gesture since actually holding a girl’s hand. Though you are not physically holding her hand through the whole ordeal, the simulation of yanking her away from trouble, fighting mystics for her, and catching her by the fingertips expresses the desolation, desperation, and danger wrought by that digital world.

The goal of escaping the castle with the girl is the main vision of the game’s designers. They control the outcomes, but not player choice. A player can choose not to ever hold Yorda’s hand, or kill her, or kill himself or herself. It won’t help in the progression of the game, but those are choices the player can make.

Those player made options take the art out of the designers hands and places them at the mercy of a players will. Where the player can make art whatever he or she wants it to be. Thus defeating the artists’ goal of creating a said piece. An artist can strictly stay within in a conceptual model to create art and inspire others to continue and contribute a style (cubism), a mood (black noir), a feeling (horror), or an agenda (Inconvenient Truth). But it doesn’t help when all a player wants to do is whatever they like on that particular day.

And business models
Paintings, music, sculpture, literature, once presented, are a finished piece open for interpretation and critique. Games don’t have that luxury. Videogames don’t finish until a participant finishes the goals set by a game designer or until they get bored. Game designers are the penniless renaissance men of the digital age.

The indie, the underground, the visionaries, the pure, don’t have the money or resources to produce such great expectations for an art piece for videogames. Thus they turn to the other mediums. The ones that do have the resources have pretty much stagnated the videogame industry. By the 21st century the world has grasped the ideology of the business model. Putting “x” amount of input could get you “y” amount of output. Videogames unfortunately fell to this industrial way of thinking, whereas the other mediums are lucky to benefit an earlier childhood.

Something needs to change. And hopefully this article will inspire others to prolong the life of a hobby we hold dear. Maybe we can better it someway. Change must be advocated for. Even if its for silly ol’ videogames. There is hope however. We’ve got the Nintendo Wii…

Art Sale
In summation, videogames are in their infancy on the scale of how our society defines art. They have technical merit. They contain skill. But maybe fundamentally at their core, they have a huge hurdle to overcome in terms of their stylings, audience, and mechanics. Quite possibly, our generation is growing to accept this digital format as one that defines us – like how the baby boomers had WWII, radio, and baseball. I’m not sure what the future will hold, but I know gaming is popular. Videogame culture’s ability to be whatever it wants is it’s greatest asset. It can be fashionable one year, then ground breaking in another. Let’s hope designers, engineers, and artists continue to keep pushing that art envelope.


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